Little by little

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Sometime in the fall a nondescript little bit of white and tan kitten appeared on our street. I wondered whose cat he was, but in that busy season soon forgot about him. It turned out that he had an unusual name, Rory, and had been given to a neighbor. I also found I was forced to think more and more about him as the winter progressed and temperatures fell, for Rory was destined to be an ''outdoor'' cat, not allowed in the house at all. Also (because his mistress worked in the next town and was not home much) his food was sporadic and scarce, and he had to sleep wherever he could find a little shelter.

My heart melted (if nothing else did) thinking of a little wispy kitten out there, yet I was not tempted to bring him inside, either, for to my dismay I have found you do not befriend an animal unless you are free to adopt him. This is mostly for your own peace in the community, because no matter how poorly a neighbor treats her pet, she does not take kindly to having its affections alienated.

Sometimes very early in the morning Rory could be seen huddled on his paws on the chimney-edge of his mistress' house, soaking up any small warmth that came up, but it was only incidental faint heat for in her hurry to get off to work she never built a fire at this time of day. At other times he would be crowded close to the bricks at the base of the chimney.

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Or he might be completely out of sight when he heard my door open, but here he would come across the roof, down the telephone pole by the corner of the house, bounding across the snowy yard and leaping over buried stones and flower beds. This was how he acquired the added name of ''Pom Pom'' - he reminded me of a feather-light little furry pom pom blowing before the wind.

Late in October, on a cold, blizzardy day, and feeling like a lawbreaker, I brought two cardboard boxes from the supermarket. Putting the long one on its end inside the other to form a half-roof, and using the stapler, I lined it with old wool sweater and placed it in the sheltered garden shed, where the kitten sometimes curled up on a cold day. He appreciated the warm bed, and I was definitely adopted - even if he wasn't!

Rory seemed content with love only in our friendship, but I soon had the choice to make between being a good neighbor and doing a kindness for a hungry creature. As the winter worsened I turned my neighborly conscience aside in order to put a daily dish of nourishing tidbits down outside the kitchen door. Then of course I was in for it - what I knew would happen of course happened - I couldn't quit because he needed and counted on it.

Never having been brought into the house, Rory braved the storms the best he could. By late winter it made me happy to see he was growing into a beautiful strong cat, tawny white with orange stripes. He was neither a true longhair nor a sleek shorthair, but as he filled out his fur became rather rough and almost curly.

Toward spring my neighbor, Rory's first family (I had begun to think of myself as his second family by now), began a slow migration to the country, to live on a farm she had bought some time before. Her talk was all about horses, cattle and farming. I was feeling sad about losing my little friend, but one Saturday morning she came to look over the fence into the yard where I was spading up flower beds.

''I'm moving today,'' she said. ''I wonder if you would like to have Rory - he's over here all the time anyhow.''

''Well . . .'' I hesitated - then, tongue in cheek - ''If you won't be too lonesome without him. . . .''

''Are you kidding? I'm going to have useful animals. Cats are no good around a farm except as mousers, and Rory's not used to the rough life - he'd never make it!''

I thought of the icy roof, the stamina it took to buck up to a long winter of sharp, strong, fierce winds blowing ice and snow that seemed to come straight from the North Pole, winds capable of sweeping a little cat right off of his feet and often did - I had seen it happen.

''I'll be glad to have Rory,'' I said.

Now that it's definitely spring Rory no longer sleeps in the sweatery box, but in the old straw chair on the back porch. Glancing out today it's a joy to see him there stretched out luxuriating in the warm sun. Both of us (I'm sure I can speak for Rory, too) are thinking how good it is to have summer - and a friend.

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